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  • Matthew Kerns

The Death of Buffalo Bill

On January 10, 1917, 103 years ago this week, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody died.


His life took him from message delivery boy for the parent company of the Pony Express to jayhawker, Union soldier, hotel owner, buffalo hunter, and scout. He was the fictional hero of a series of dime novels written by Ned Buntline, who convinced Cody and his friend and fellow scout John "Texas Jack" Omohundro to join him on a stage tour called "The Scouts of the Prairie" in the winter of 1872. From the moment he rose to prominence in 1869 until his death nearly fifty years later, Bill Cody exemplified and embodied the American West.



Though initially referred to as a melodrama or a "blood and thunder" production, his initial play with Texas Jack was the very first Western, the antecedent of the many plays, movies, and shows that would follow. The following season, Cody and Omohundro parted ways with Ned Buntline and added to their dramatic company their mutual friend James "Wild Bill" Hickok, though his refusal to take his dramatic career as seriously as Cody did lead to his departure from the stage before the end of a full season. Cody and Omohundro spent the next several years touring together in the winter and hunting together in the summer, before General Custer's death at the Little Bighorn sent both men to Montana to once again serve as scouts under the auspices of the United States Army. They parted dramatic ways after their tour of 1876 but remained friends until Texas Jack's death in Leadville, Colorado in 1880.



After a few more years touring stages, Cody began what he came to call his Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. Touring the nation by train, Cody brought the West to all of America, planting his version of the American frontier indelibly into the minds of citizens in the more than 1,400 cities the show visited. Traveling to Europe, Cody became the first American superstar, perhaps the most well-known man in the world by the end of his life. Throughout this time he extolled and showed to the world the virtues of the cowboy first by his old friend Texas Jack and now by the cadre of entertainers in his entourage.



In late 1916, Cody traveled to Glenwood Springs to recuperate from a bronchial infection. Realizing that his health was not improving, Cody boarded a train to Denver to return to his family, making a stop at the Leadville station on January 6th, 1917. As the train pulled in, he told his nurse about his old friend Texas Jack, buried across town. Not well enough to leave the train due to his declining health, Cody was unable to walk across town to Evergreen Cemetery and the grave he had generously erected for his friend. As the train pulled out of the station, Cody waved goodbye for the last time to the people of Leadville and to his old pard Texas Jack.


Bill Cody and his doctor, William W. Crook, days before his death.

Four days later, Buffalo Bill was dead.


If you have never taken the opportunity, I urge you to visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming and the Buffalo Bill Grave and Museum on Lookout Mountain, Colorado. The lasting legacy of the man is immense.


This is the last picture of William F. Cody, known to the world as Buffalo Bill, taken as he left Glenwood Springs the week before his death.


Last known picture of Buffalo Bill, January 1917.

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